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August 27, 2007

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Christopher Shinn

A few months ago Alison Croggon brought up Christopher Lasch here -- I forget the context. Lasch was a problematic but insightful cultural critic who elegantly integrated a Marxist critique of capitalism with a Freudian critique of liberal humanism, in beautifully written analyses of contemporary American life.

I bring him up here because he warned against a culture of "experts" that was an increasingly influential force in (and that had always been a part of) American life. These experts -- social scientists, cognitive-behavioral therapists, New Age gurus, etc -- claimed to have specialized knowledge about how we should live. Lasch of course recognized that these so-called experts were nothing of the sort, were instead exploiting inherent human vulnerabilities (and the fears of life produced by capitalism and technology). In the process of offering their "expert" advice, they became rich and enjoyed the gratification of being idealized by the dependent and confused community.

Lasch needs to be critiqued: his antipathy to liberalism had an hysterical tinge, and there were reactionary nostalgic strains in his thinking that he did not interrogate. Further he seemed to lose faith in psychoanalysis as his idealization of organized religion grew.

But his insights and contributions can't be denied. It doesn't take a brilliant cultural critic to see that this culture of experts has grown tenfold since Lasch began writing about them, and that in our little neck of the woods, it has poisoned the contemporary theatre under the guise of "new play development."

Joshua James

Great frackin' post, Isaac . . . it need not be fixed from any comment from me, not in the slightest . . .

jaime

Chris, I don't think the idea of developing new plays is inherently poisonous. Not all plays spring from the writer's head like Athena fully formed, and some writers find it helpful to develop their work in collaboration. Sometimes it's with a director. Sometimes it's with a friend. Sometimes it's with someone whose job title is actually "Dramaturg." That's all developing new plays.

Sometimes a theatre wants to help a writer develop/finish a play, sometimes so that maybe, once the play has reached its fullest potential, the theatre might produce it. I think those intentions are noble and important, it's a (beautiful, important) system of supporting art.

Problems happen when power dynamics are fucked up (your point, I assume, with the 'culture of experts' talk), when intentions are bad (developing a piece away from the playwright's intent) and when individuals are bad at their jobs.

When done well, "new play development" is not a cancer of the American theatre, but rather a service to writers and a resource for producers. It gives opportunities to writers and encourages connections and collaborations. Yes, good development is sadly rare. But as long as people like Isaac keep thinking about how to do it better, and writers and theatres keep trying with good intentions and assessing their process and results, it can be something important and good. I don't think we should eradicate it. I think we need to make it better.

Zack Calhoon

I love this post. It is spot on.

George Hunka

One of the ways we might make it better is to allow dramaturgs -- like playwrights, like directors, like some publicists -- to freelance, to be invited to join a show, instead of having a dramaturg imposed on a show by fiat of the institution.

It's important to consider here the history of the dramaturg in the American theatre, which has been quite different than that in the European. Wikipedia has a fairly good precis of the history of the position here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramaturge

Mark Turvin's essay at http://www.goldfishpublishers.com/DramaturgEssay.html
has a rather enlightening paragraph on the recent emergence of the position here:

"Dramaturgy came to America through 1960s academia. At Yale, under the tutelage of Robert Brustein, the education of theatre critics was moved from the English to the Drama Department. Brustein recognized the importance of creating a theatre critic that was more than an enlightened audience member. His future critics were taught the basics of performance, direction, and design, and given equal amounts of playwriting as well as reporting instruction. Because of internal strife in the program, this career track was transformed from a theatre critic vocation to a dramaturgical one. The theatre students grew to resent their involvement with those who would move away from them and into journalism. Michael Feingold, the longtime critic for the Village Voice and a walking theatre history textbook, was one of the first to graduate from this program. Later graduates began to evenly split their future careers, some going to newspapers, and others staying in theatre management."

I find it interesting, and much to Chris's point, that the unmet need that professional dramaturgy serves in the U.S. is to academic and institutional programs rather than to any perceived need among theatre artists themselves -- that we may have all these dramaturgs because of internal political squabbles at Yale (which also gave us a huge cadre of playwrights in the 1970s), rather than a crying lack for the position.

As the position of "artistic director" has become more of a fundraiser than a hands-on creative force, more and more authority has been placed in the dramaturg to hew the contours of a production to the theatre's aesthetic.

Perhaps a production wants a dramaturg; then it can go and find one. The best will be highly sought-after I'm sure. The rest ... well. And there's nothing to say that the dramaturg's salary might be better spent on higher pay for the other creative personnel involved in the production.

Christopher Shinn

Jaime, what defenders of new play development never acknowledge is that other societies, which have much healthier new-writing structures in place -- where young playwrights are getting full and enthusiastically-received productions -- have nothing even approaching "development" as we understand it in America. However could those young writers be writing such good plays without new play development? Can you answer that question?

I don't necessarily disagree with anything you've written; but I'd argue that the cure is worse than the disease, and that maybe the disease is in part a creation of the cure (why write a good play if it will only be developed and likely not produced, and noted to death by a "new play development" team which may or may not understand how plays work but which has to be mollified and submitted to in hopes of getting the next reading, a workshop, the longed-for, dreamed-of production, etc).

Dominic Cooke's season since taking over the Royal Court is an example of what happens when structures exist that support the writing of plays (new writers' groups) and then productions. The intermediate step of readings and development without a commitment to production is largely lacking in the U.K. I am a product of a culture that produces, at the highest level, the untested plays of untested writers, and over there I'm one of dozens.

The only way to build playwrights is by giving them full productions. Nothing really can be learned from a reading or workshop, except how to avoid the dreaded existential confrontation between play and (as Mamet stresses) a paying audience.

Joshua James

What Shinn said, especially the last paragraph . . . yeah boy!

That's right, I'm simply sitting in the gallery echoing and cheering, that's what I'm doin'!

Christopher Shinn

I should add that, on the face of it, the new writing initiative at the Public looks really promising. There are unagented young playwrights out there whose work is more or less ready to be produced -- I've read the plays and there can be no doubt about this. Let's keep our fingers crossed that the Public recognizes that new writers need more than support, they need productions -- and that productions of original, authentic, idiosyncratic work written outside of a bureaucratic system is just what audiences are hoping to find, whether they're seeing the new Churchill, Shepherd, or Albee, or a writer they've never heard of.

The plays are out there: will the institutions rise to the challenges of finding, recognizing, and producing them? The Public has committed itself to the first of these, which is more than can be said for most of our non-profits.

jaime

Chris (not to hijack this into a dialogue) - I'm not at all advocating for developing plays to death. I think the system that does that is supremely fucked up. I just don't think that abolishing development is the answer. Dramaturgy and new play development are two different things, and developing plays is not limited to the institution of American New Play Development. A dramaturg is a resource, and should be used or not as the need is or isn't there. I agree that the system of mandated development is often detrimental to the production of good new plays. (Though I wonder, if American theatres had as much governmental support, would they be more willing - or able - to take risks on untested writers?) I just don't think that dramaturgs are a symptom of an evil culture of expertise, as your first comment implied. Dramaturgs and development, though related, are not one and the same.

Tony

One thing that I can never figure out, or get a clear answer on --why is it that dramaturgs are the only ones I've heard say why there truly is a need for dramaturgs? It has always seemed to me one more unnecessary step between the page and the stage.

Working Group

Tony- I think it's because many who go through the development system have been forced to work with a dramaturg who was assigned to our play. Invariably, in my expericne and our company's experience, dramturgs have appeared to preent themselves as someone who's going to help you really "find your play" or "help you write it" sadly they're coming in when the play has already been written and the 'help" can feel condescending ("oh the poor playwright couldn't find his way" syndrome). We had a recent situation at a conference- and one I've felt individually before- where the dramaturg started to become a hinderance tot he process because they didn't feel enough of their suggestions were making their way into the writer's script or headspace, and s their time was being wasted... such a backward relationship.

im with chris and josh, we just need theater that has some balls. the public's new writing group is a step forward and hopefully other institutions will follow suit- the national new play network have begun creating residencies for unknown "emerging" writers at host theaters which is also a good step.

the fact that most of the plays that go through development don't ever get produced is a pretty good argument toward the "development" failing wouldn't you say?

Ben Kessler

Great insights, Chris. A reading or two can be helpful to a playwright; simply hearing the text out loud can provoke realizations that can help to steer the revision process. But I think that many of the excesses of contemporary playwriting come directly out of the development culture. For example, Jenny Schwartz's God's Ear was a play that could have been great had Schwartz not indulged in senseless, wacky diversions (non-sequitur musical numbers, etc.). Knowing what I do about writing classes, I guessed while watching it that these distractions were added in an attempt to please a surrogate audience of dramaturgs and artistic directors. No paying audience would demand that a writer relax her commitment to her concept in that way, and a serious writer wouldn't willingly desecrate her own work.

If development is to occur, it has to go in the opposite direction to how plays are normally dealt with by dramaturgs. The goal should be to challenge the writer to develop his or her concept further, even if it means dredging up painful, "unpalatable" truths. Frequently heard and frustrating to the playwright are comments such as, "I didn't care about these characters," which betrays the experts' desire to toss out the troubling elements of a text, which are often the truest elements. It's as though Brecht never happened.

jaime

Tony - the only reason I defend dramaturgical development (and this is NOT the same as the system of New Play Development) is that I have seen it work, witnessed processes after which playwrights feel their play has found its truest and best expression of their intention. It's not something I'd force on anyone.

Ben - about God's Ear - do you know that the "diversions" were a dramaturg's idea? I'm just unclear from what you wrote. What if Jenny thought the play was great as it was, wacky diversions and all?

Joshua James

Jaime,

Have you worked with a dramaturg, or worked as one?

I've done both . . . a great dramaturg is a wonderful tool IF NEEDED . . . a bad one terrible no matter what.

Let's forget that it's hard to quantify who can or can't do it well . . . let's talk about dramaturgy.

Dramaturgy is a tool that all directors and writers should be familiar with and also studied at length. . . if we have those skills, why hire someone else? Or have someone IN THAT ROLE forced upon us?

But if a dramaturg is not needed, why do they have to be there?

I feel that dramaturgy is part and parcel of what I do as a playwright, I do . . .

Joshua James

Oops,

Jaime, I posted my comment before I saw your previous one, in which you answered what I asked . . .

So the big controversy is, indeed . . . should new playwrights (or any playwrights) have a dramaturg forced upon them if they don't wish it, isn't it?

callie kimball

i think there are two separate but equal negatives to these points:

1) playwrights' work being tweaked to suit institutional needs; and,

2) playwrights being forced to get into bed with institutional dramaturgs.

possible positives to the same points:

1) everyone has a price. if you sell your soul a little in the interest of gaining some career traction (or of paying rent), just make sure to never forget that you're a little bit of a whore.

2) sometimes going to bed with someone you've been set up with is a good idea.

my take on this is that the playwright must be very strong-minded and not conflict-avoidant. you know in your gut when your work is being manhandled. in a bad way.

no great symphony, sculpture, or oil painting was ever created by a committee. i think because theatre's medium is human flesh and spirit, and because everyone thinks they're an expert on human nature, and everyone thinks they know how to tell a story (or at least "improve" one), playwrights have a harder time maintaining boundaries. artists have had to deal with the soul-killing aspects of patronage for centuries. even shakespeare wrote his big commissioned epic poems for his patron, and you could tell he was phoning it in in places.

the playwright should start any relationship with a strong clear voice of how s/he prefers/needs to work. back to the sex metaphor--you've gotta communicate your needs up front, otherwise you're going to find yourself faking it just to make it stop.

Aaron

Playwright Erik Ramsey often helps me (and folks such as Julie Jensen) develop work. He shuns the term dramaturg for its negative associations listed above. Erik's current term for helping a playwright develop work is dramatic engineer (though he admits that's problematic). I've always liked the term rabdomancy, except its awkward to pronounce.

My point is that I don't see the institutional dramaturg as actually part of new play development. I see the dramaturg as serving the need of the director to put the content of the play in historical or cultural context --and have even given the dramaturg my own research as a starting point.

The person who is going to help me divine the play from the rubble of the first draft - I want to choose that person, and he or she may not be on the payroll of the producing institution.

Mark

I've written extensively on this and people know what I think. The point I'll emphasize here is that there are a limited number of opportunities to make a decent, stable living in the American theater and I think playwrights should receive more of them and dramaturgs/directors of new play development should receive less of them. At the risk of sounding pompous, I consider rectifying this injustice an important part of my life's work.

Ben Kessler

Jaime,

I wrote that my guess was that Schwartz (consciously or unconsciously) shaped her play to the preferences of the folks at the various places where the play was workshopped. Whether or not Schwartz was happy with the performed text, I submit that God's Ear is an example of the development culture that helped to produce it.

The play received several readings and workshops, yet the performed version was riddled with silly, digressive moments that should have been the first elements excised from the script. We can assume that the various dramaturgs on the project had a reason for leaving these non sequiturs in, if not encouraging Schwartz to incorporate more. If Schwartz's play had been the usual fluff, there would be no need for these moments (and I wouldn't be writing about God's Ear). But because there was actual troubling content to the script, because Schwartz was saying something, a diluting agent was necessary. Something had to intervene between the writer and the audience to soften the blow. That's the point I'm trying to make about new play development.

devilvet

1)What is the difference between a dramaturg and a script doctor?

2)If dramatrugs are as good as their advocates say, then should I bother listening to a dramatrug that hasb't enjoyed some sort of success as a playwright?

jaime

Ben, everything you're saying about God's Ear is a completely unfounded assumption. I hate to get contentious, but it's completely ridiculous to cite that play as an example of the perils of overdevelopment when everything you're saying about the process is pure speculation.

Devilvet - A dramaturg helps the playwright achieve their goals; a script doctor comes in to change things to someone else's specifications. A dramaturg supports; a script doctor "fixes." And not all dramaturgs are playwrights, just like not all editors are novelists, and not all directors are actors.

isaac

To weigh in,

Ben, I completely disagree with your aesthetic opinion of GOD'S EAR, which is fine, but what I think is truly bizarre is your completely unfounded speculation about how the play was written. Especially since there's some public record about Schwartz's writing process, which is very very slow-going and thorough and involves amongst other things completely re-writing the play from scratch for each draft. (anyone got a link to Heidi Schreck's article on the play from THE BROOKLYN RAIL?)

This is especially odd given that the #1 complaint about NPD processes is that plays get all their weird kinks and digressions smoothed out in service of more conservative taste's ideas of what a play's structure should be. Which is the exact opposite of your complaint about the play, which is to say it's a padded, dilluted mess. (Again, I disagree, but to each his or her own).

Ken

Aren't the skills of the dramaturg ones that directors used to possess? And aren't the responsibilities of the dramaturg ones that the director used to shoulder? I'd love to hear from directors as to whether they feel that a bit of their territory is being usurped. I would much rather take notes from someone who is actually going to stage my work than someone who views it as purely a literary entity. I think I can represent the literary end of things fine by myself. What I need is a director to bring three-dimensional physicality to the work, and to recommend those changes that best facilitate that.

devilvet

A dramaturg helps the playwright achieve their goals; a script doctor comes in to change things to someone else's specifications. A dramaturg supports; a script doctor "fixes."

And can you elucidate how the dramaturg supports? What does the Dramaturg bring that say a close friend who also writes couldn't.

i.e. if someone is paying for a dramaturg just what are they paying for break down the methods used to "support" please someone?

jaime

"What does the Dramaturg bring that say a close friend who also writes couldn't."

Nothing except perhaps more experience and skill, in that this is a specialty of theirs, and, hopefully, they're exceptionally good at it.

Paying a dramaturg for their work... that I don't know about. Sometimes someone needs a committed outside eye, in a way that a smart friend can't be. Sometimes someone wants notes - not to be taken blindly, but to be processed and evaluated for their helpfulness.

Dramaturgy is a practice. A dramaturg can be a literary manager, director, agent, vagabond off the street - it's what they do. Dramaturgy turns into something bad when it's either done poorly or done in service of an infirm system of handling new plays.

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